Sunday, August 28, 2011

Social Media for Scientists - Science Under Siege

Dr Rachael Dunlop speaking at Social Media for Scientists (Photo: John Carney, with permission)
@andanin: Weeeee, #socmedsci tomorrow! How am I supposed to sleep? Far too excited! #nerd
Yes, Thursday night I was a hyper little bunny, and by the time midday Friday rolled around, I was nearly jumping out of my skin with excitement. I was on my way to the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne to attend one of the most highly anticipated events on my calendar, a seminar on the use of social media for the promotion and communication of science. The speakers were all people whom I hugely respect, following their online personas religiously. Due to train timetabling, I arrived rather early, and ended up having to seek out coffee while waiting, in hindsight perhaps not a wise move in my already supercharged state. Incidentally, the guys at Royal Fig Cafe are lovely. After half an hour catching up on tweetdeck (sans internet connection), it was 3.42pm, and time to get amongst it!

What follows is a bit of a mash-up between what went on at the seminar, my own thoughts, and the twitter conversation both during and after. It's long, very long. Many of the tweets and comments by the panel are no longer in chronological order, as I've tried to group things into the conversation points they are relevant to. Note: If you feel I have quoted you incorrectly, or misrepresented your view, please let me know. I WILL fix it. Some excess hashtags & @'s have been removed to allow for ease of reading.
@embws Sitting w scientists & communicators ready to hear exciting talk of how we can embrace social media to tell others about our work
@MissPezaro I'm watching to encourage scientists to jump on board, share their work & engage with us. We want to learn from you!
The excitement was palpable in the filled-to-capacity theatre, with its dimmed lights, microphone checks, powerpoint presentation splashed across the front wall. From the outset, you could tell this was no usual scientific seminar, as everyone pulled out their phones, laptops, and assorted other nerdy paraphernalia. Discussion was initially hushed, as people quietly confessed to those sitting next to them the extent of their social media addiction, conversation quickly buoyed as each became assured of the knowledge that in this room, they were by no means alone. I was wired, my hands shaking, knots in my stomach. I could hardly hold my pen, almost out of place at this type of forum, but the only option given my inability to type well when hyperactive. I was starting to regret that latte. A bit of shuffling to incorporate the late-commers into our ranks, and Dr Krystal Evans called the room to order. Many know her simply as @dr_krystal, the bright twitter personality who came to the attention of the wider science community as a passionate advocate during the baptism-of-fire that was the "Discoveries Need Dollars" campaign. It is hard to believe that the rally was only 5 months ago. There's short burst of laughter at the realisation that we're actually being encouraged to use twitter (and any other social media platform we desire, so long as all devices are on silent) during the event. Yes folks, for the first time ever, people were ENCOURAGED to use their phone during a seminar.

I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

Unfortunately, not long before this came up, I'd made the sad discovery that there was no wifi in the theatre, and therefore I couldn't actually contribute to the online conversation. My disappointment was mercifully short lived, as Dr Evans introduced the afternoon's invited speaker, Dr Rachael Dunlop. First, let me say, this woman is an inspiration. Tweeting as @DrRachie, Dr Dunlop won the 2010 Shortie award for Health, is a brilliant science communicator, who has spoken on panels all over the place (Including Dragoncon, EPIC!), teaches science to kids through the "Mystery Investigators" program, is an important part of Australian Skeptics (including their podcast), blogs wonderfully, is the Research & Communications Officer for HRI, and somehow still finds time to pursue research in the area of environmental triggers of motor-neuron disease. I'm sure I've left stuff out, but it give you an idea of how prolific Dr Dunlop is.

Science Under Siege
Anyone who essentially kicks off a seminar with a PhD Comic about the science news cycle is a legend. It is also quite fitting to what we see unfold as scientists. We discover a possible link between two things, publish a paper about it, and go back to the lab to do more research. Meanwhile, the uni's PR machine picks it up, tweeks it slightly for a press release, and sends it off to the media. The media, as we all know, loves a headline, and "A causes B" sounds much more impressive, and sells more copies, than "A may or may not cause B, holding C to be true". The little changes snowball, and eventually the scientist who wrote the original paper is left beating their head against the wall, wondering how their work came to be heralded by doomsayers as the final sign of the upcoming apocalypse.

There is no better example of this miscommunication or misuse of science than the recent GM wheat 'scandal', and subsequent raid of CSIRO Canberra's test crops by GreenPeace activists in July. I've no doubt several hearts jumped on seeing Tony Jones at the start of the news clip, only to be disappointed that it was from Lateline, and not QandA. The attitude of GreenPeace in the days after the attack can be summed up as "We don't understand it, so we'll destroy it". A very good point was raised by an audience member later that GreenPeace were very familiar with the techniques used, but as they don't agree with the use of the technology, they took the theatrical route.

So, in light of these glaring gaps between scientists and the public (or groups that claim to support the public's best interests), what are we up against? Several key factors were raised here. The first was public apathy and a lack of science literacy in Australia. This was quite obvious during the #protectresearch campaign, when threats were made by federal government to slash NHMRC funding. Some of the comments that came out said that we should have come up for a cure for cancer already, and as we hadn't, why keep pouring in funding? Another asked why scientists need so much public funding, as they're all driving around in fancy, expensive cars. This got a few giggles out of the crowd, as so many of us ride pushbikes rather than drive, and those that do have cars certainly don't have flash expensive ones. I blame CSI.
@dr_krystal Public misunderstanding of science: Scientists are all driving around in expensive cars...
@brainsmatter Do scientists all drive in expensive cars and are in cahoots? Umm ... No
Other problems are internal to science. The current academic system does not reward outreach or communication outside of of journals, as evidenced by immense pressure to publish, or as we call it in our lab "Publish or perish". Too much involvement in communication and outreach can be viewed with suspicion by our peers, who may perceive such behaviour as being "unable to handle 'real' science". Karl Saigon is a good example of this, when he was denied membership of National Academy of Sciences because his involvement in media made him unpopular with other scientists. Finally, we also have to contend with the "critics" of science, with their anti-science rhetoric - Alan Jones with his constant attacks on scientists, Lord Monckton of climate denying infamy, and even our elected representatives, such as Peter Phelps of the NSW Govt, who likened scientists to Nazis (Godwin's Law, DRINK!). Recent foibles by Tony Abbott and co were not mentioned, though serve to further highlight the issue. And that is to say nothing of the damage being perpetrated by the Australian Vaccination Network and Nimrod Weiner!
@brainsmatter Politicians continue 2 misuse data 2 suit political ends-ensure that the public has a reasonable understanding of the real facts

So how to we, as scientists, stand up for ourselves? How do we break the siege? Two recent campaigns have sprung from attacks on scientists. The first, and perhaps most interesting, as the quickly mobilised #protectresearch "Discoveries Need Dollars" campaign. In a matter of days, scientists had organised rallies across the country, were lobbying politicians, and were taking their work to the world. Public support was huge, but and ultimately the campaign was successful: the federal government backed down from cuts to funding for health research. More recently, the "Respect the Science" campaign has been started, largely in response to threats made against climate scientists in the lead-up and wake-of the carbon tax announcement. But why did we need these campaigns in the first place? The answer is some what simple to identify, but much harder to address: Scientists simply are not engaging in communication of their work to the general population. A personal observation, since these campaigns have started, I've noticed an increase in scientists online talking about their work and why it's important. It has been, in my opinion, the biggest success of either campaign: it has shaken the scientists up, and gotten us out and talking to the people.

And our best medium for this? The interwebz of course! Dr Rachael gave us a stack of stats, and they are awesome. Pay attention, cause these are the one's you'll want to take to your supervisor to get them to shift their butt online! Consider for a moment that Australia has a population of around 22,660,000. 12 million of us are on Facebook, with around 10 million checking their account daily (Matt was shocked by this stat when Dr Rachael was talking to him later that night, non-believer!). 9.8 million are on YouTube (Do a search for lab/science/nerd/geek remixes, gold!). 1.8 million are on twitter, with a similar number utilising WordPress as their blogging platform. Youtube and Facebook are amoung the most accessed pages in Australia. All these people already engage in social media, so why can't we engage them through it? At the moment, it is a captive audience of untapped potential! Interestingly, it was mentioned that twitter has a slightly older demographic compared to Facebook, and Google was our most used search engine by a ridiculously significant margin (86% market share!).
@dr_krystal Who's using social media in Aust? 1.8 million on Twitter, 10 million on Facebook - a captive audience for science?
@dr_krystal  Australian use of social media statistics from @DrRachie here
Also check out Hitwise Australia for great stats on which websites we browse
So, how are we using our time on the internet? Apparently, we're a tiny bit obsessed with our health, with 1 in 2 using the internet to self-diagnose medical conditions (We've come a long way since my great-grandmother pestering my doctor grandfather about the her latest self-diagnosis courtesy of General Hospital). Two thirds use the internet to investigate medications. However, most will only read the first page of search results (~10 entries), which are often inaccurate (they also change, based on profiling of your previous searches). Seriously, go check out Dr Google, type in a random symptom, and see how deadly your condition is. After playing with that for 5 mins, you won't be at all shocked by this next statistic...
@brainsmatter 71% of self diagnosis search results on google are wrong
@dr_krystal Australian use of internet for health info from @DrRachie talk here
@cpezaro I'd love to be able to receive credible medical advice by #SocMedSci!!
@dr_krystal Do scientists have a responsibility to shift the balance of information available on the internet? To counter-pseudoscience?
@_vTg_ On this point, I think any scientist complaining about errors in Wikipedia should make he effort to correct them.

This is all fine and well, but how can we harness this power for good, rather than evil? Enter Prof Simon Chapman (@simonchapman6), from University of Sydney, with some very wise words: "I just can't see the point of doing research if no one is going to read it". He tested the impact of social media on the dissemination of information based on downloads (not peer reviewed). He had previously sold 200 copies of a particular book. After tweeting about it, it was downloaded 7,000 times. A paper on competing interests? 242 hits. Paper on peer-review refusal? 800+ downloads. My blog gets <40 hits a week, I'm more than impressed by his numbers. Then there's Paul Knoepfler, a stem-cell biologist and prostate cancer survivor, who wrote for the Nature News blog (may require registration) earlier this year on the growing acceptance of blogging as a medium for science communication. I won't spoil the read for you, but his message can be boiled down by his final statement: "Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged."
@dr_krystal How to increase the readership of your research papers? Put them online & tweet about it. Start a blog and write about it.

Can one person's blog really be the game changer though? Yes, it can. A paper was released in the International Journal of Oncology claiming that homeopathy was an effective treatment for breast cancer. Have a read, and tell me what's wrong with that picture. Dr Rachael got hold of it, and effectively ripped it to pieces, exposing it for the terrible piece of science it was. One of the authors even distanced herself from the paper, saying she had requested not to be a listed author. The original article was tabled in the UK parliament in support of homeopathy funding, a call went out from another MP who thought it was suspicious, Dr Rachael's blogged criticism was provided, and the motion was subsequently rejected. Win for common sense!
@embws Sensational & bad science can slip thru peer review & get media attention. eg. Homeopathy study published in Int j oncology '10. Dr Rachie exposed lack of statistics & issue w toxic solvent in homeopathy study through twitter

Finally, Dr Rachael left us with an excerpt of an interview with Prof Peter Doherty, in which he reiterates the need for scientists to communicate with the community through any means available, and that social media like blogs and podcasts are important for this. We cannot rely on traditional media in Australia, especially when several providers have vested interest in seeing some ideas shot down (i.e. climate change). With advent of digital media, print media is becoming obsolete, and 'new' media, such as is the way forward. Advice from a Nobel Laureate? I'll take it!
@embws Prof Peter Doherty urges us to get involved in because we can't rely on print media to get it right
Dr Rachael Dunlop was a wonderful speaker, beautifully engaging, and obviously passionate. Her contribution to science communication is inspiring, and her seminar was thought provoking in the extreme. If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend listening to her speak, reading her blogs, and following her on Twitter. She's also fantastically approachable, and great for a chat. Legendary.

Coming Next: Social Media for Scientists Part II - The Panel Discussion.


  1. Neysa, thanks for blog-casting this event. I saw your earlier tweets and was hanging out for this post because I didn't get to attend what seems to have been a wonderful event.

    I look forward to part 2!

    Lucas (aka @c0denix)

  2. A very good summary of the event as I recall them Neysa with many, many things packed into a short period of time - such a shame it was only getting started.

    We were provided with examples of how science is currently under siege but I can't recall any discussion as to why. To me, their has been a devaluing of scientific expertise and their advice over the last few years to that of mere opinion and belief - especially when climate change is concerned. This devaluation has put it on an even playing field with other beliefs and opinions that are in the public realm (internet etc).

    How to get the public on side to again appreciate the distinct approach of science and the value it brings to society is an immediate challenge for science communication. I think that some people do not separate scientists from those that use science to create public policy - this may be part of the problem.



  3. Lucas - Thanks for dropping by, hope the content helps!

    Greg - I agree, such a shame we didn't have longer, although the discussions after the event were also fantastic. I agree that we did not really get to discuss the reasons behind the demise of respect for science, which would have been interesting. Perhaps this is an area that could be looked at in the context of a longer Social Media focused event in the future?

  4. A very good summary of events, thanks Neysa! There was so much I didn't have time to cover - like how you can get reliable health information on the net. I have a whole different talk just dedicated to this!

    I think the point about why there is a lack of respect for science is also easy to cover. Just Google countries that have science teaching in schools. It's pretty shocking how low we are in the scheme of things.

    My partner who also attended this event made only one negative comment - it could have lasted a lot longer. The panel discussion was very well received, suggesting we need more of this.

    I was so pleased that Neysa said she may have convinced her lab to use social media. This is a big win :)

    Let's do it again soon.